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The Greatest Republican


In addition to the hundreds of thousands of newspaper copies in which the speech was printed, several pamphlet editions appeared in 1860 and these reached hundreds of thousands of additional readers. The Cooper Union address transformed Lincoln from just another western politician with a country-bumpkin image into an eloquent national leader with what modern political pundits term the “gravitas” to be president. If he had not come to New York, or if his speech there had been a failure, the Lincoln of history would not have existed. “Without Cooper Union,” writes Holzer, “Lincoln might have ended up, at best, as a historical footnote.”

It is altogether fitting, therefore, that a prominent New York politician, Mario Cuomo (to whom Harold Holzer was an aide during Cuomo’s governorship), should write Why Lincoln Matters Today More Than Ever, a book for which Holzer is listed as “historical consultant.” Cuomo is a Lincoln scholar in his own right. Fifteen years ago, as the restive Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe was beginning to break up, he took the lead in putting together a book of Lincoln’s writings, with introductions by leading historians, titled Lincoln on Democracy, which was translated into Polish and other languages to encourage the rise of democracy in those countries. If Lincoln mattered then, and if his words and ideas helped end the cold war, Cuomo thinks he matters today more than ever.

Why Lincoln Matters is the latest in a long line of efforts to use Lincoln as a sounding board or foil for current political and social issues. Some of these efforts are specious, as in the case of Ronald Reagan’s quotation of Lincoln maxims in a speech to the 1992 Republican convention—maxims that were written by an obscure Pennsylvania clergyman in 1916 and attributed to Lincoln. This was not an isolated incident. Lincoln has been quoted as saying things he never said more often than perhaps any other person in history. Cuomo does not make up any Lincoln sayings. But he goes further in speculating about what Lincoln might do or say today than a cautious historian who limited himself to the evidence would do.

In 1955 the Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald wrote a clever essay, “Getting Right with Lincoln,” which analyzed the compulsion of American public figures to find a Lincoln quotation (real or spurious) or attribute to Lincoln a position that agreed with their own policies on some issue.2 I have had my own experience with this practice. Twenty years ago I gave a lecture to the Lincoln Group of Delaware on Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War. After the talk I agreed to an interview with a Wil-mington radio station. The first question the interviewer asked was: “If Lincoln were alive today, what would he do about abortion and the budget deficit?” I was tempted to reply, as Senator George Norris did when asked in the 1930s what Lincoln would do about the Depression, that “Lincoln would be just like me. He wouldn’t know what the hell to do.”3

Cuomo’s speculations on “What would Lincoln do?” are more sophisticated than these questions—but not by much in some cases. The author’s unhidden purpose is to contrast Lincoln’s values and policies with those of the current president—always to the latter’s disadvantage. On the matter of preemptive war and invasion of a foreign country, Cuomo’s comparison of Lincoln and George W. Bush is sound. Even though Lincoln never heard of Iraq—which did not exist in his time—he would probably have opposed Operation Iraqi Freedom. As a member of Congress in 1847–1848, he opposed the Polk administration’s war against Mexico. Cuomo quotes a particularly apt letter from Lincoln to his law partner William Herndon that rejected Herndon’s support for a preemptive invasion of Mexico to forestall that country’s invasion of the United States. “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion…and you allow him to make war at pleasure,” Lincoln wrote:

If, to-day, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, “I see no probability of the British invading us” but he will say to you “be silent; I see it, if you don’t.”

Many readers will agree with Cuomo’s central theme: the current administration has given Americans “no uplifting cause, no inspiring rationale,” no “vision worthy of the world’s greatest nation,” in contrast to Lincoln, who “labored to make the words of the Declaration of Independence a way of life. Equality and opportunity for all—truly for all.” Lincoln

would have known that we cannot end terror in the world just by having the world’s most powerful weapons and best fighting force any more than we can end crime in America by having the best police and prisons. We have to add to this force whatever is needed to provide the realistic hope for opportunity and dignity that quiets rage and produces peace.

Lincoln might well have agreed. But Cuomo perhaps pushes anachronism too far when he suggests that Lincoln surely “would have signed” a bill to authorize embryonic stem cell research and “certainly would not have felt obliged to push for legislation or court rulings that would have prohibited all abortions.” On the question of civil liberties, Cuomo criticizes Lincoln for imprisoning allegedly disloyal civilians and both Bush and Lincoln for imprisoning alleged terrorists without access to the courts to answer charges against them. Cuomo acknowledges that the threat to the nation’s very survival was greater in the 1860s than today and therefore Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and his use of military tribunals to try civilians was not as egregious as “the transgressions of the Bush administration that threaten to set a new record for flagrant disregard of the Constitution.”

Cuomo’s historical consultant should have saved him from errors in his discussion of Lincoln and civil liberties. It is not true that

Lincoln took it upon himself to authorize suspending the writ [of habeas corpus] in contradiction of the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court.

Nor did he allow “a military tribunal to convict civilian John Merryman.” What happened was this: in the first days of the war John Merryman led a pro-secession guerrilla force that cut Washington off from the North by tearing down telegraph wires and burning railroad bridges in Maryland. Arrested and imprisoned, Merryman appealed for release on a writ of habeas corpus issued by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in his capacity as senior judge for the circuit court with jurisdiction in Maryland. Having suspended the writ, Lincoln refused to release Merryman. Taney denied the president’s power to suspend the writ—but in so doing he was acting as a judge of the circuit court. The issue never came before the Supreme Court itself. Nor was Merryman convicted by a military tribunal—he was released after seven weeks and indicted in a civil court, but the trial never occurred.

In a curiously passive voice, the Constitution stipulates that the writ of habeas corpus “shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” This provision appears in Article I, which otherwise specifies the powers of Congress (executive powers are laid out in Article II), so Taney ruled that only Congress could suspend the writ. Lincoln insisted that suspension was an emergency power intended to be exercised by the commander in chief in time of war. Several legal authorities wrote essays endorsing Lincoln’s position, while Taney, as the author of the Dred Scott decision, commanded little respect in the North.

Later in the war, military tribunals in Ohio and Indiana did indeed convict several Northern civilians, among them Lambdin Milligan, of aiding and abetting Confederate agents operating behind Union lines. After the war the Supreme Court, in Ex parte Milligan, voided the Indiana convictions on the ground that military courts could not try civilians when civil courts were open and functioning, as they were in Indiana during the war. This issue of military tribunals remained contentious during Reconstruction, as Elizabeth Leonard makes clear in Lincoln’s Avengers. This book combines a much-needed biographical portrait of the federal prosecutor Joseph Holt with analyses of the seven men and one woman charged with taking part in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, as well as other postwar prosecutions.

A pre-war Kentucky Democrat, Holt was a staunch Unionist during the secessionist crisis and helped keep his native state in the Union. Like his friend Edwin M. Stanton, who became Lincoln’s secretary of war, Holt moved to the Republican Party and in 1862 was appointed judge advocate general and head of the Bureau of Military Justice. As the senior legal officer in the War Department, he set policy for court-martial trials of military personnel during the war. He also gave the orders for the military trials of Lambdin Milligan and other civilians that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1866. Because he prosecuted antiwar Northern Democrats with ruthless zeal, Holt’s reputation has suffered at the hands of historians who claim that he was much too ready to use dubious and even perjured testimony against those he considered traitors in league with Confederates.

Leonard does much to rehabilitate Holt’s character. Her analysis is by no means a whitewash, however. She concedes the hard edge of his zealotry and the lack of “the highest degree of discernment and good judgment” in the prosecution of those he considered public enemies. His excesses, however, stemmed from a devoted patriot-ism and a hatred of treason. He insisted on a military court to try the eight people charged with conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward (who recovered from his wounds). In this case a military court seemed justified even though the defendants were civilians. The victim was commander in chief, the war had not officially ended, Washington could be considered part of a war zone, and the conspirators were charged with acting on behalf of an enemy power, particularly in the plot to kidnap Lincoln, which preceded John Wilkes Booth’s decision to kill him.

As chief prosecutor, Holt tried to prove that the assassination conspirators were acting on the orders of Jefferson Davis, who was captured by Union troops as the trial began. With relentless persistence, Holt pursued his effort to link Davis to the assassination plot even after his leading witness turned out to be a perjurer (for which he was later convicted and imprisoned). Although Holt was much criticized at the time and subsequently ridiculed by historians, some modern studies of the assassination conclude that he may not have been so wrong after all in his belief that Davis and other Confederate offi-cials—especially Secretary of State Judah Benjamin, who escaped to England—had ties to the conspirators planning kidnapping, or assassination, or both.4

Holt was criticized for his determination to prosecute Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth’s broken leg as he fled from Washington after killing Lincoln, and for seeking the death penalty for Mary Surratt, at whose boarding house the conspirators frequently met. But recent scholarship has also demonstrated that Mudd was more guilty than his defenders believe5 and that Holt presented the court’s recommendation for commutation of Mary Surratt’s sentence to life in prison to President Andrew Johnson, who refused to grant clemency.

Leonard maintains that the assassination trial and Holt’s continued pursuit of evidence for Confederate complicity in this matter must be understood in the context of Reconstruction. Just as Radical Republicans wanted to enact equal rights for freed slaves and to exclude former Confederate leaders from political power to assure a loyal and democratic political order in the South, so Holt tried to prosecute former Confederates as part of this process. Holt’s “vision of Reconstruction,” writes Leonard,

was predicated upon the vigorous punishment of the South’s social and political leadership along with the entire region’s submission to a national future that included… the extension of civil rights to the freedpeople.

For Holt, justice was a higher goal than reconciliation—especially when reconciliation with Southern whites meant subordination of Southern blacks. Holt lived until 1894—long enough to witness sadly the triumph of precisely this process of reconciliation and subordination. We owe Elizabeth Leonard a debt of gratitude for rescuing him from undeserved oblivion.

  1. 2

    David Herbert Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, second edition (Vintage, 1961), pp. 3–18.

  2. 3

    Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 314.

  3. 4

    William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall, and David Winfred Gaddy, Come Ret-ribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln (University Press of Mississippi, 1988); William A. Tidwell, April ‘65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War (Kent State University Press, 1995).

  4. 5

    Edward Steers, Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (University Press of Kentucky, 2001).

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